Beyond the chief’s extension

by Shuja Nawaz

If General Qamar Javed Bajwa can set Pakistan on a smooth civil-military path, his extension will be well earned

Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken away a hot topic from the drawing rooms of Islamabad by announcing the extension of the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, for a full three-year term. His new term will end in November 2022.

The portents of this action were visible to most observers. They could see the signs in the recent elections and the close coordination of actions and announcements from both GHQ and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The delegation that came to the US last month confirmed the possibility of an extension — based on the chemistry between the prime minister, his army chief and the newly-appointed director general of the Inter Services Intelligence. The Indian action on Kashmir and the hasty announcements from the White House and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad about the imminent agreement with the Taliban on a US withdrawal from Afghanistan could only have provided further justification.

Hence the short announcement that pins the extension on the “emerging regional environment”.

While the extension is likely to impact the military and the country’s politics in general, it may also offer an opportunity to reform the military command structure.

Historically, extensions have been the norm in Pakistan. The first native army chief General Ayub Khan took over in 1951, and occupied his slot for seven years till 1958, when he appointed General Muhammad Musa as his compliant chief, while he became the president and later field marshal. For five of those seven years, Ayub Khan was also defence minister and home minister — thus permanently upending the Warrant of Precedence that Pakistan inherited from the British rulers in 1947.

Musa lasted eight years in his job. He left after the 1965 Indo-Pak War, after handing over authority to Ayub’s chosen General AM Yahya Khan in June 1966.

Yahya was a faithful army chief to Ayub, till people took to the streets to protest the unkept promises of the Ayubian Decade of Development. Yahya then launched a coup de mainagainst his benefactor, forcing Ayub to hand over power in an extra-constitutional move to the army chief instead of the speaker of the National Assembly. If he had not misread and mishandled the unrest in East Pakistan, Yahya may well have remained in power beyond his eventual term of just two and a half years.

Yahya’s successor Lt General Gul Hasan Khan did not last long. He was succeeded by General Tikka Khan and then Muhammad Ziaul Haq, who inveigled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into thinking that he would be a faithful and obsequious servant. Street power intervened again after the challenged elections of 1977 that prompted Zia to upend his benefactor with ease, and run the country for 11 long years till he died under suspicious circumstances in August 1988.

His successor General Mirza Aslam Beg completed his three years in August 1991. Despite rumours of him wanting a promotion to a higher level, Aslam was succeeded by General Asif Nawaz, who died in office in January 1993. General Abdul Waheed then took over and to his credit clearly refused an extension offer from Benazair Bhutto. His successor General Jehangir Karamat did not have to make that choice, having been forced into submitting his resignation a few months short of the end of his term.

Enter Pervez Musharraf. Another long innings, from 1999 till he was forced to appoint his deputy General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the army chief in 2007. He eked out his term as a powerless president. Kayani, the first former ISI DG to make it to the top rung of the army, made himself indispensable to both the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) governments, while maintaining a creative tension in relations with Islamabad. According to reports, the PPP had to beg Kayani to accept an extension. Perhaps one day the truth will come out.

Kayani was in power for nine years, three as ISI DG and six as army chief. His unfavourite Raheel Sharif then took over under the PML-N government and undertook a much-delayed clearing operation in Fata against the Pakistani Taliban and their foreign guests. That operation and a tweetstorm of support from his Inter Services Public Relations DG created a cult-like popularity for him. Sharif had declared via a tweet that he would not accept an extension. A call from the desert kingdom could not be refused. And that led to the arrival of the current army chief.

Now, General Bajwa’s extension has created two types of reactions. Those, who decried the snub to the rest of the military’s upper echelons, thought that an extension did not recognise the quality of leadership in the army and its institutional strength. It relied too much on a single general. Others who felt the country was going through a rough period, with an economy in a shambles, external threats from both the east and the west, and global pressure to pillory Pakistan via the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and the strictures of the international financial institutions, spoke of the need for consistency and continuity.

The army currently has some 177 generals in fighting arms (this does not include the doctors and engineers and other technical services). Two are four-star generals, some 27 three-star generals, of whom corps commanders and principal staff officers are the key advisors to the chief. Based on seniority, a some of these able three-star generals were poised to take over as COAS and Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) chairman. Another 148 are two-star major generals. Some of those would have moved up a notch if the chief had retired on time. Some 43 of these major generals have already been superseded. They will go home regardless.

Of the three-star generals, an additional 23 will now go home before the chief’s new term ends. One of these may well get the consolation prize of JCSC chairmanship when the incumbent retires in November this year. It is hard to imagine that there are no reverberations among the upper ranks. But the army will retain its discipline and give the fledgling government its chance. Till it stumbles.

Yet, this extension offers opportunities. Pakistan badly needs to re-organise its upper defence command to better administer its three armed services under a single chief of Defence Staff or empowered JCSC chairman. With an extension under his belt, General Bajwa could help the government make this decision by involving civilian and retired military experts to streamline the command structure and better provide the single point of advice to the prime minister.

Currently, the army chief does that anyway. But this bypasses the seniority ladder since the Joint Chiefs chairman is out of the loop more often than not. A model for this structure might be the Packard Commission report in the United States that led to the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that allowed President Ronald Reagan to create an all powerful chairman of Joints Chiefs and introduced the concept of other four stars as theatre or regional commanders.

Pakistan has taken tentative steps towards regional commands but it needs to devolve operational powers to their heads — elevating them to four-star rank, reporting to the CDS or Joint Chiefs chairman, giving the army chief more time to provide the support at the centre that they need to manage their theatres of command. At the very least, Pakistan deserves a serious study of the best means of achieving its defence objectives. It needs a clearer line of command in manning the war room at the PM’s Office to coordinate service operations.

Simultaneously, General Bajwa could press for an updating of the war directive from the civilian government that could yield fresh doctrines from all three services. This is needs to be done on a regular basis. It requires setting a clear vision for the next five years or so, and the institution of regular quadrennial or quinquennial reviews so the civil and the military leaderships can jointly set their defence targets and achieve them too. There will always be creative tensions between the two sides. But if civilian supremacy becomes more than an empty slogan, the civilians have to educate themselves and improve through good governance their ability to call the shots on the national scene. If General Bajwa can set Pakistan on this path, his extension will have been well earned. And the prime minister would have done Pakistan a big favour. If not, then there will be many saying, “I told you so”.